Batman: Ornamental | Issue 5 – Understudy, Part 3 by Drew Van Dyke

Image source: “Sno2”. (Their website is https://www.deviantart.com/sno2.)


{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN…}

Listen:

Rub. Grab. Stab.

            Ya hear me in there? Rub. Grab. Stab.

            The man in her head told her she would make a perfect mindless tool.

            Rub. Grab. Stab.

            Just like the best women, the best her would no longer break the rules.

            Rub. Grab. Stab.

            “I hear Grundy’s on the list this time…”

            Rub. Grab. Stab.

            Grumbles, “…Been a long time he’s waited in line…”

            Rub. Grab. Stab.

            Holds the needle to the light. “How he ever gets the money…Regardless! What do you think? Give it a whirl?”

            Rub. Grab. Stab.

            “Yeeees…I think you’d make a perfect…hmmm…maybe, Grundy Girl?”

            Rub. (These ropes ‘til they fray and fall away. And with as long as he monologues, the friction won’t even need to be that hard…)

            Grab. (That stupid gun from his stupefied hand.)

            Stab. (Him, anywhere you can find a spot. Maybe even twice, if you feel it. He’ll never stand a chance.)

            Oh, wait. A giggle. Nevermind.

            I mean: he never did…

            “I dunno,” Harleen Quinzel says. “For me, the name’s just not quite…on-point.”

Rub.

            Grab.

            Stab.

*     *     *

{GOTHAM SKYLINE.}

The Batwing cuts the rain, blots the moon over so many upturned, downturned heads. I watch Jay in the seat ahead of me. His head is on a swivel – excitedly peering side-to-side, as we soar the massive expanse of Gotham-proper in mere seconds. His open mouth is silently laughing. He’s vibrating with uncontrollable energy.

            I smile. They always love this part.

            They. 

God… 

I think of Dick – that same wonder, once.

            In my mind, Gordon is again talking casualties of war.

            Ornamental, then. There ya go…

            My war.

I look to the sky; know what Alfred would say: “Let him watch, Master Bruce. Let him enjoy it while he can. Ask him what he enjoys. Why he enjoys it…”

Ornamental, then…

“Human interaction, sir: it isn’t that hard.”

…There ya go.

            I just watch him, watching. I do that for a very long time, it seems, in my own sort of wonder. This, the child of the streets – another of us. It’s a peaceful thing, to bring happiness.

Is that what this is?

            You’re not the only one…

            “Robin, report,” I bark. “What’s our ETA?”

            It shakes the look from his eyes, and his lips purse when he remembers I can see him at co-pilot. His fingers run the monitors, skip on sensors and a toggle switch that gives him the reading we seek.

            He looks out the window again, and I can see he’s disappointed in the result. Then he looks forward.

            “Two minutes, twelve seconds, Batman,” he says. All business. Flips back the toggle. Steels his gaze

            I sigh.

Another of us.

“Best enjoy our view, then,” I say. “Guessing we won’t beat it where we’re headed.”

            His cheeks draw back, and he looks off to the side.

            “No wonder you’re always hogging the airtime, Bruce!” he says. “It’s…gorgeous – like a van Gogh painting!”

            “Batman,” I say. And I chuckle, witnessing for the first time the lines of the streetlights and car-shapes, the roadways and their elevated rooftops, the window voyeurs at this speed – moving, passing us by through the streaks of rain. Two whole minutes of animation I’ve never seen before. “So, um…you like van Gogh?”

            He waits a moment, then nods, timidly.

            “Me too,” I say. “Me too.”

*     *     *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN.}

If disabling Jervis Tetch was to be the hard part of her getaway, walking out of the examination room should have been the easy one.

            In all actuality, though, that door knob terrifies Harleen Quinzel. As the limp rope skins fall from about her torso, the latch is all her eyes can find. In this state of heightened paranoia, she can feel every quiver of the compacted air around her.

            Was that a step?

            Was that a step?

            Or a shout?

            An alarm?

            Or the door?

She clenches the implant gun in her fist and stands. But what the hell do I have left to be scared of anyways? 

A creak. 

She catches her breath. 

That.

She catches it again. 

“Um…hey-ya, Doc?” She waits.

            “Ooooh…”

From the floor, a rustling comes, first low, then a bit higher, propping itself up on an elbow or a knee. She makes her way to the computer at the far end of the room – partly to block the anticipated bull-rush, and partly to learn what exactly she’s gotten herself into.

“Oh, Dooooooc-tooooor?” She listens hard, for any possible hints at further movement by her assailant.

She checks over the screen in hurried paces – scrolls for words she can recall.

Under-…?

Understudy.

“Yes…Ms. Quinzel?”

Project…Understudy…? She clicks the icon. Rolls the mouse.

Oh…oh, god…

She smashes the needle through the screen. “Stay,” she says, to the Mad Hatter. “And be…um,” she points his general direction up, and then down, “better.” 

He nods and tries his very hardest to lie still. His muscles tremble.

Harleen rubs the patchy stubble atop her head, and tightens her grip on the implant gun. She stares that door down once more. 

“Time to get the hell out of this place.”

*     * *

{MOMENTS LATER…}

Voices come down her way.

Harleen leaps back behind the nearest crate just in time. The warehouse, stacked like toddlers’ letter blocks – no order or meaning; the letters upside down and sideways, not spelling anything in their muddled chaos build – nestles one central hall down the tall turf grass, she notes, off from the moaning pit of women and children, to the laboratory from whence she had just come.

From…somewhere…

…And to another, she thinks. Overhead, there are collected rising ramps of metal scaffolding, held up by thick wires around the boxes. My escape.

She hadn’t noticed that she had walked (Well…was dragged against my will, really, she thinks.) through boxes before. They went high, disappearing into the black above the wires, and seemed as though walls to the untrained eye, they were so cluttered. Or maybe that was just the trick, she wonders, turning herself to be further behind the group chat, and away. Behind the boxes – or, perhaps, around (Yes, around, she deduces.) them – were a variety of emptied and rusting chemical vats, their ruptured tubes and wheels, smelts, and holes from and for burning and mixing and cooking; degraded; decrepit. They, too, were in shadows, cast long by the overhanging box fort.

Has-been, came the words. Corroded and gone.

So, it’s all just a single hallway through a single building.

…I can make that work.

The voices were closer now – coming by – and her legs trembled, so much so that she just knew they would hear her bones that rattled.

Impossible, though, she said, clutching the implant gun closer to her chest, and shrinking her being smaller than sight. Impossible.

As they came by, it was clear that the Ventriloquist was at the lead, speaking to someone amongst a heavily guarded escort. Between himself and Thick Boston (That was ‘Scarface,’ right?), the conversation (Heavily one-sided…), seemed something of a sales pitch, and (judging by the speed and ferocity of Wesker’s dual cadences), one to a rather important clientele, who was not (Based upon those repeated grunts and sighs in reply…), at all interested in buying what he was selling. Their presence, though, was corpulent – a fog-thick tension drawn up into the room.

“…And…um, yes…as you can see…the…er…like over here, you know…”

“Spi’ it out, you igiot!”

“Yes…yes. Why yes! Like Mr. Scarface was saying, sir—”

“Hmm?”

“’E’s tryin’ to say, our goss has imgued us with quite the stog-gile of goods foy the cagtives.” There was the sound of hollow wood striking flesh.

“Yes…um…we…our model is airtight enough that it—”

“Eh.”

“—isn’t—”

“Uh.”

“—ahem, is feasible that the—”

Harleen strains to hear, as the boots crunch turf on by.

“Um…”

She holds the implant gun like a pistol. Wesker’s voice gets quieter as they pass her by: “—with the location, I mean—”

“Huh.”

“—we could…er…under the advisement of myself and the Doctor—”Another slap. “Mister Tetch – Jervis – provide a steady stream of scientifically…well-trained, um…obedient…”

The hand comes over her mouth without sound. Her eyes bulge. Behind her. From behind. Caught by an unknown assailant.

“—undetectable—”

“Shh, shh, shh, now.” The voice is a rolling syrup whisper in her left ear. She can feel the eyes down her figure; back up. “This is much more interesting than ole Venny McScarsgaard drooling about.” A male. It’s another man. “Well, not if he were really drooling,” he said, “but that could be arranged, I suppose…”

“—help.”

She grits her teeth; raises the gun – tries to raise the gun. The other hand – blindingly white, but gentle – pushes her own back down.

“No, no,” he whispers. “We won’t be needing that.” He sees the bloodstains on the glowing tip…crawling down her slender wrists like roots – the exterior veins. “Explains where that idiot Hatter is, though. Who hires these dunces, amirite?” Her tension fades a bit. “It’s too bad, really: blind leading the blind. Could be a lucrative business opportunity…if I actually did fair business with people…”

“’Ey!” Scarface barks.

“Maybe I did actually get something out of this trip, though,” says the man.

“I ‘ear ya! Come on outta gare, gogAMMIT!”

Harleen looks left. She looks right. The voices have turned back upon her hiding place. Upon she and the white-hand man.

            A chorus of gun cocks rattle down the aisle, snare-drums, all around. Continued footfalls come to back them up.

The man holds her mouth and nose still. He smells of peppermint and old sweat. Grumbles.

“This was too fun,” he says. “But appears it’s time to roll out.” And then he giggles in a near perfect chromatic – deep, then up the scale to a blazing wheeze. “Would love to see what you do, here. Have a better day, Toots.” He removes the airy fingers and, in a flash of purple and green, comes into the clearing by way of a Willy Wonka summersault. Flamboyant, hands in the air, he mockingly tells the guards it is their turn to hide, now. He laughs uncontrollably. Does not mention Harleen Quinzel, nor even hint at her location.

Shell-shocked, she falls back against the nearest box as the entourage, led by her assailant grasping the disconcerted shoulder of Arnold Wesker, continues their walk away.

She knows that man. She knows him, and she whimpers. Gasps. Silently, she gasps. Looks around. Is alone. 

Smiles.

Then, she runs the other direction. Just runs.

She just runs. 

*     * *

{A FACTORY ROOFTOP. DOWNTOWN GOTHAM CITY.}

The alarms only just sound when our top cabin door slides back – when, from hovering atop the warehouse roof access, I dismount the jet in a rear pommel kehr; Robin loses his footing from a graceful (but ill-advised) backflip in the collecting metal-basin puddles; falls onto his backside.

“Holy oceanic overhead, Batman!” he says, in the roaring downpour doldrums.

“Holy rust buckets, Robin,” I chuckle back, reaching down my gloved hand.

“Yeah, yours is better.”

“Yeah.” I peer about the outer sheetmetal; wet, regret — only side-eye the half-lit red letters spelling out the words. “ACE Chemicals, eh? You’re sure this is right?”

The thunder claps. “As rain,” Robin says. (Heh.) “Signal from a private IPU traced to inside, flipped to public, then dismantled. Quinzel’s punchcard number from the bank, along with a—”

Off to the right, the roof access door clamours onto the riveted siding. Robin and I shrink to a ready position, as the blared warning buzz, unleashed, drones only louder. Our actions are automatic – mechanical, at this point.

“—list of heights and weights associated to…missing…”

We anticipate an attack. 

Instead, what we are met with is…crying…

“…persons…”

“Rub! Grab! Stab!”

“What in the—?”

“RUB! GRAB! STAB!”

Women, children – they are in all shapes and sizes, holding makeshift weaponry, chanting, pouring like viscous liquid from a tapped and failing dam. They begin laughing as the rain marries their skin; watching the thunder with once-trapped, wide eyes. I’ve seen that look. I’ve known that look…So many of them. They call out to us, and they aren’t afraid. They are…

I feel a tugging at my cape – look down. The child is no more than four years old, hugging my leg.

I can stop…the rain…

“Free?” she says. And I pick her up and I ask her where her mother is, and I hug her. Hit the button on my beeper that alerts Gordon to our location. Have Robin send for backup. 

I hug the child again, still in a defensive crouch. Know that we still aren’t sure what is herding them up from the innards of this chemical plant.

This is the right place. It has to be…

The flow of persons has become a trickle, now. We are enveloped in a sea of escapees. I set the little girl down behind me – wave Robin (who is high-fiving the circle of women three times his age, who have gathered around him) back to me. We push our way to a position between them and that buzzing doorway. It is calling out to us, pulsing red from inside, like a choking tongue. It tells us “danger comes.” 

We stand. 

We wait.

And when she comes up from that blinking well – bald head; with wide, leaving eyes; wearing tattered rags of her former life, caked in blood like a poor makeup – she smiles. She smiles the widest smile I have seen in ages – a smile to bring you back if you are gone – and kicks the door closed behind her. She takes an implant gun from her hands and jams the metal nose into the latch, securing the access point from any hostiles who may remain inside.

“Hey…uh…Bats,” she says, and she approaches us like an old friend; an ally. “See, I don’t know who’s coming behind me, but we may want to speed this little celebration party venue change of ours up a bit…”

“Looks like the good part already happened off-screen,” Robin chimes.

“Sounds pretty normal, huh, ladies?” she laughs. They cheer, and begin their chant again. “Tell you about it later.”

I hear the clatter of wanton escape from below, now. Make my way to the edge of the roof, where two shining cars scream up to the back exit – slide in the rain – collide. The doors release in near sequence with the building’s.

Jackpot.

“Who’s in charge, here?” I say, turning to the woman.

She reaches out her hand. “First things first: Harleen F. Quinzel.” (‘Vulnerable individuals,’ huh, Commissioner?) I smile; awkwardly speed-shake. “Second things next: Mad Hatter and Ventriloquist are the ones who roughed me up. Repaid at least half that, B-T-Dubs. But I overheard them mentioning a boss a-some kind—”

“A boss?” Robin says. “Holy chain-of-command, Batman!” The women all giggle. One ruffles his drenched black mane. I look back over the edge at the overfilled getaway vehicles. Pull out my grappling hook. 

A boss…

That means Gordon was right. This goes even higher than I…

When I take aim, though, that’s when I see him, unfolding the rail of the next-door fire escape, pulling himself up. I look down, and then back up. 

A man is running.

The lightning finds his face. 

Two faces.

No…

Before I know them, my boots, caressing the rooftop pave, throw me like a chaos wind after this man, each step avoiding possible fall through the sheer and lonesome strokes of my own luck; my cape hums and pops behind.

“Batman, wait!” Robin yells. “The cars! They’re getting awa—!”

            “HARVEY!” My roaring voice drowns the boy away. My specter hears the cries – leaps up from the escape. It’s clunky. Jarring. The bars vibrate. He scrambles ahead.

Not too far ahead, though… 

            “Robin to Batman!” Jay’s voice rings into my earpiece. I ignore it.

            With each step, Harvey Dent’s shadow – the one of raised warts and fester and boils – the hollow scars flashing his teeth (I know it! The dark night showed me! The flashbulb moon of his figure!) – outruns; it grows further from me, disappearing about each corner; pulled on, leaving just enough trace, a flicker and an echo, that I cannot help but follow the lure toward the net, swimming until I am gone into the lines of passing light. 

But, too, so is he.

            “HARVEY!” I scream. The thunder applauds. “WAIT!”

Not too far…

            “Robin to Batman!”

            I drop the com line – rip my pointed ear from the cowl where the antenna sits, and toss it and its straining wire, snapped, from the palm of my heavy fist; and I keep running. The world is

roaring, and I keep running for the flashing shadow; running, running, running; and screaming as I leap over entire alleyways, to entirely different buildings, until I am in an entirely different neighborhood. I see a flicker, and it is him. It isn’t a bird, it is him. He is still alive. Somehow, he is still alive, and though I am burning from the inside, I must find him.

I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there, but I’m here now. How are you here, now, Harvey? How are you…?

            “Harvey! HARVEY!”

            My fear is returned. Or maybe it never left this place. I am a temple of fear. I pray to it. I make it my sacrament. It is pouring. 

I can see it. Flick

I can see it. Flick. 

I can see it. Flick. 

I can see it.

            My air is fire, but I see him for real this time. On the building opposite me, the light hits a pane of glass and burns a hole in the dark. I watch him stop and turn, and he holds his pistol back at my face – Harvey “Two-Face” Dent. The suit splits – pinstripes to an argyle of mixed shades at the tie. He looks me in with a permanent scowl, and I am coming so hard now at him, that I see the last jump approach, and I know that it is the last jump by the heat in the boiling water around us. I hear the motor coming. Feel the net closing in.

I saw your corpse, Harvey.

Ornamental, then…

            “HARVEY, NO!” I say, and I reach out for him, like he is my very last lifeline. “HARVEY! I…JUST WANT TO TALK!”

            I know I’m short when my foot takes off. I feel the chaos wind blowing the waves. I feel the world shift out beneath me, and I feel my ribs stab me and come apart when the bricks rise to meet, and I hit the wall’s edge. I’m gripping that rooftop pave with all of my strength – pulling, willing myself to pull up. Through tears in my eyes, I see Harvey’s figure still standing, like lines in the Gotham moonlight. He lowers his gun. He just…watches me.

            That’s all he ever was doing, I realize. He was never going to catch me. Just reel me in and throw me back. Sport fishing. 

He doesn’t care what happens now.

            I feel my body sliding, and, last-ditch, I slam the blades of my gauntlet into the tar and pebbles, where they stick with a hard rubber bounce, and I’m being held by my hyperextended elbow – just one of them – yanking and crying out, willing my way toward the net.

            It isn’t right.

            “HARVEY!”

            It isn’t…right…

            “HAR-…-VEY? Did you…do this?”

            But when I finally pull myself up far enough to roll onto my back, I know he is already gone.

            Gone.

            Gone.

            My friend is gone.

            Breathless, I hit the tracking device on my belt again. See helicopter lights glare in the distant rain, as the GCPD comes to the aid of its Gotham Janes.

            My friend was here…

…But now, he is gone…  

TO BE CONTINUED…

in BATMAN: ORNAMENTAL 

Issue 6 – Three of a Kind 


C.D. DyVanc currently lives in the Midwestern United States. He is an award-winning journalist, and, in his free time, enjoys jumping out of airplanes, reading comic books, and being the epitome of the living dad joke with his wife and stepson. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Rue Scribe, Dream Pop Press, and Five:2:One’s #thesideshow. His chapbook, rhi(n.)oceros, won the 2017 Midwest Chapbook Contest, and is currently available through Greentower Press. You can find his horrible use of GIFs on Twitter (@CDDyVanc), if you’d like. 

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